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Why Do We Fall? Learning From Failure and Defeat During Training

“Why do we fall?… So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”[1] 

At the British Army’s Junior Command and Staff College (JCSC) there is a new drive to tolerate risk within a plan and to accept the possibility of tactical failure.  Students are pushed to test what is possible rather than what is safe; if you succeed or if you fail, there at least, no one will die.  But for many, this will be the first time in their careers that they have been granted the unrestricted freedom to experiment, take risks and face the possibility of failure without reserve.  Why is this case?  Why when there is now a wealth of evidence to suggest that failure is often the greatest catalyst for development, and antidote to lethargy and stagnant thinking, is there so little appetite to allow for failure?

Many would argue that, at a time when the mounting pressure on manning has combined with a growing expectation of output, failure should have been forced years ago.  But the Army’s professionalism and disregard for anything less than success has had to fight through.  This is important; on real time operations, an Army must strive to win and succeed at all costs – failure is defeat.  But then when does an Army learn how to pick itself up again?

So how does the British Army learn how to deal with a lack of success and learn from the bitter taste of failure or defeat?  How do we avoid doing this the hard way and without incurring mission failure, loss of lives and material, as well as significant damage to our reputation?  The British Army has suffered major defeats in the past: Isandlwana[2], Yorktown[3], Singapore[4], and from each, much was learnt, but arguably at too great a cost.  Could the British Army and the country stomach equivalent costs now?  I assert that the only opportunity test to failure, is therefore in training.  Yet even here there is a dilemma.  Failure in training at every level can have a positive impact on the likelihood of success in the future, but failure of any sort, even in the training environment is shrouded by a heavy veil of negativity.  General McChrystal highlighted this in a Ted Talk: ‘How do leaders deal with failure?’ as he discusses how important it is to fail in training[5].  But it seems to be an obvious reaction from many in our Army that failure should be avoided at every opportunity because it is commonly held that “the taint of failure can jeopardise even the most stellar career or the most successful organisation”[6].  This belief is supported by the crushing need to impress one’s chain of command in order to be well reported on, promote and progress.  The appetite for training to failure is I judge, extremely low.

This should not be so; the perception of failure in training and its associated narrative must be changed.  The benefits of experiencing failure or more specifically, the acceptance of the risk of failure in training are well reported[7].  Failure can lead to a greater search for solutions, it motivates individuals to adapt, it forces focus on otherwise unseen weaknesses and it provides perhaps the greatest test; it forces individuals or groups to experience and recover from defeat.  In contrast, without permitting the risk of failure, overconfidence and stagnation can flourish and true adaptation is impossible.  The enemy that we train to fight will remain constant while the real enemy will continue to develop and adapt out of sight.  There is an argument to suggest that constant development and true adaption can only come from failure and the reaction to it; too much success breeds overconfidence.

Moreover, when we achieve success again and again, we are likely to attempt to continue to do the same thing expecting the same results while never fully investigating the weaker elements of a plan, or in some instances even recognising them.  This ‘Peak End Bias’ leads individuals to remember all that they have done well and omit that which went poorly.  In contrast, failure typically represents an exception that does not conform to expectations and thus requires more active, deeper processing.[8]  It forces us to look more closely at what we do in order to understand where the problems lay.

Without permitting the risk of failure, there can also be no true Mission Command.  A commander cannot allow a subordinate to decide on the ‘how’ of a problem with freedom, unless that commander can accept at some level that they may not succeed.  As former Utah Governor Scott Matheson states: “You have to suffer failures occasionally in order to have successes.  You’ve got to back up risk-takers in order to encourage people to try out new ideas that might succeed… I have never had much patience with the ‘play it safe’ manager who attempted to minimize failures.  Those people rarely have successes.” [9] Perhaps it is therefore fair to argue that those who do not permit failure in training are fostering an environment of only limited success.  Studies have shown that failure experiences have been associated with increased risk-seeking, just as success has been associated with increased risk-aversion.[10]

On exercise, the British Army rarely ‘loses’; this seems to be in stark contrast to our US Army colleagues who’s Warfighter exercises (a larger scale equivalent of a CAST at formation level) often has a dynamic OPFOR challenge and tactically defeat US Army formations.  Recently Commander BATUS has suggested that he wants to push to failure and provide a situation where it will be possible for a Battlegroup to attend a BATUS, fail every mission and yet still pass, but this thinking is rare.  Units and sub units may take ‘casualties’ and face setbacks, but on the final day of any test, the British Army is almost always the victor.  But what lessons are learned and more importantly, which lessons from ‘victory’ are remembered?  There is now ample evidence that links negative military experience to the influence of failure-avoidance norms, including research on risk avoidance, the denial of bad news, and the retrospective revision of negative history.[11]  It is easy to suggest that the British Army and its people seek to avoid any association with failure at any level or in any guise, but how much of this is actually in the search for professionalism and how much of it is pride?  Individuals’ ability to admit to failure and actively seek to learn from it is a key, but I judge, as all too rare attribute.

One way to challenge the current status quo is to force commanders at all levels to be more open to failing their subordinates during training.  This is no easy feat and no doubt would come as a shock to many, but with explanation and perhaps most important to the process of development, the provision of detailed and structured After Action Reviews (AARs), failure can then be turned into future success and the culture can be changed.  These failures would challenge the norm and could draw attention to potential problems, stimulating the search for potential solutions[12].  Even the reporting process could be adapted; annual reports could be better drafted to acknowledge failure and the process by which an individual reacts, recovers and learns from it in order to foster a greater level of risk acceptance and learning.  Alongside fitness, loyalty and other such attributes, an individual could be scored on their ability to deal with and learn from failure (the USMC already include a section for Professional Military Education (PME), including personal analysis, in their annual reports).

The failures of others can also provide a learning tool for the rest, and failures of the past can be learned from again and again.  Organisations can study previous operations and the failures attached to better educate and inform their audiences.  Book-clubs, battlefield study days and critical training sessions can focus on examples of defeat and failure rather than success and triumph, allowing all to learn from others’ mistakes.

Arguably, the US Army practices failure far more frequently than their British counterparts.  Often exercises up to Divisional level, will end without overall success, only to be repeated.  The appetite on the second rotation for learning no doubt increases quickly.  Perhaps then it is from others that we can learn.  But it is clear that, the British Army must learn to accept more failure in training, firstly to stave off the chance of failure on operations but secondly, so that as an organisation we are better set to deal with failure and understand how to turn failure into success.

[1] Batman Begins. (2005). DVD. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures





[6] Sutton, R.I. and Callahan, A.L., 1987. The stigma of bankruptcy: Spoiled organizational image and its management. Academy of Management journal30(3),


[8] Sitkin, S.B., 1992. Learning through failure: the strategy of small losses. Research in organizational behavior14, pp.231-266. PDF

[9]Cohen & Sproull, 1996; ‘Organisational Learning’, New York,  Sage Publications,

[10] Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A., 2013. Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. In Handbook Of The Fundamentals Of Financial Decision Making: Part I

[11] Argyris, C., 1985. Strategy, change and defensive routines. Pitman Publishing.

[12] Canals. J, 2011; ‘The Future of Leadership Development: Corporate Needs and the Role of Business Schools’, New York, Palgrave Macmillan

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A Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle during an exercise at BATUS, the British Army Training Unit Suffield in Canada.
British Army

Dan has 6 years of hands on infantry leadership experience

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J-G January 1, 1970 at 01:00

While working closely with US colleagues a German LTC gave me the following analogy of US vs European attitudes to training and exercises which I quite like and in a multinational HQ J7 branch saw first hand.

Ski Training
Two novices want to improve their skiing. The European (Brits included) will go to a ski shop, hire some reasonably priced skis, start on the nursery slopes and gradually progress, only ever attempting the next run level when there is reasonable confidence of no failure, plenty of Snow Ploughing along the way. Eventually they’ll get to the black. Once mastered they’ll safely return their kit to the hire shop before retiring to the Apres-Ski. The American will get off the resort transfer, take the lift to the top of the nearest black slope, grab some top end skis from an industry sponsor at the ski bar on the summit, and throw themselves down parrallel skiing from the outset. This will lead to numerous bruises and strains, maybe some breaks, his sponsor might need to replace his broken kit a few times, but they will master that particular black slope quicker.
The American has the money for better kit, healthcare and insurance so can learn in this way.

The question my German colleague then posed was twofold. Firstly, how can Europeans possibly hope to keep up with this costly approach?
Then, rather tongue in cheek, who makes the better skier?

Failure is a catalyst to learning, but Brits and their European comrades need to eek out every penny from a training serial. Resetting a serial has an associated cost, with limited resource we must be careful to train to win, not to seek to train to fail. There’s a crucial balance here, and the most important thing is to train with the most realism. Strong, unbridled OPFOR is important, and critically, realistic trainsets, not some fully functional unit with 100% battle worthiness. How many times have you seen BLUEFOR Combat Readiness miraculously improved during time jumps and overnight, unlimited rear support and infinite battle casualties, ammunition and platforms? With more realism in training commanders will be forced to adapt to try and win.

Jim October 3, 2018 at 13:03

We are all complicit…if failure is important, then we need to leave our egos (and our fragile career aspirations) at the door and make the most of every opportunity (to fail). Have the confidence not to care what anyone thinks of you and grab the opportunity. I was once asked on exercise if I knew exactly where I was…I didn’t, I knew where I was in relation to the enemy and where I needed to get to, in order to get to a position of advantage, my response ‘I’m aiming rather than navigating’ didn’t impress my boss. But we got there and it worked, even if it hadn’t worked, damn it was a bold move and felt amazing. And you know what, if the Army takes it personally and you have a boss who doesn’t value that and all the safe and clean operators get promoted first, well, that’s the Army’s loss. you will know you have been the best you possibly can be…you have dared. Strive Valiantly. At least fail by daring greatly. Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘in the Arena Speech’:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

George October 5, 2018 at 10:00

Really relevant article. Already makes the point that training and assessment are far too closely aligned and therefore failure in training is also failure in assessment and subsequent promotion. The corollary is that there is no incentive to experiment and ‘fail’

Objective measures facilitated through simulation and with a live enemy) could be used in training. Take for example a Light Infantry Company Attack (easiest unit of currency as that is what everyone goes through initial training with).

Use the Project Management framework for this assessment:

Cost – Ammunition used and Casualties taken
Time – Speaks for itself
Quality – Subjectively measured

Crucially, the results of things like this MUST be directly linked to reporting. If the CO remains free to grade the OC that they like the most/think is the best then this won’t work


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